Cooper wrote Notions of the Americans in 1830, when he traveled around the United States. The contrast between Cooper' s approach to American Indians in Notions and in his fiction pieces such as Last of the Mohicans is striking. In both texts, he is interested in the passing of the American Indian due to the advance of European civilization. However, in Last of the Mohicans, this passing is tragically dramatized in sentimentalizing and demonizing terms; in Notions, it is accepted as inevitable and while unfortunate, not necessarily tragic. Cooper states: "Still, many [Indians] linger near the graves of their fathers, to which their superstitions, no less than a fine natural feeling, lend a deeper interest. The fate of the latter is inevitable; they become victims to the abuses of civilization, without ever attaining to any of its moral elevation."
While Cooper refrains from reinscribing the same patterns of sentimentalizing and demonizing present in his fiction pieces, in Notions he reveals that he is unable to understand Indians within the terms of their own culture. He consistently compares them to the European class system, such as when he says, "In point of civilization, comforts, and character, the Indians, who remain near the coasts, are about on a level with the lowest classes of European peasantry. Perhaps they are somewhat below the English, but I think not below the Irish peasants."
In Last of the Mohicans, however, Cooper is sensitive about not only American Indian culture in general, but about separate American Indian cultures, which are often overlooked. There were hundreds and hundreds of Indian nations in the nineteenth century (indeed, there are over three hundred now), but authors often homogenize them into one "pan-Indian" identity. Cooper carefully researched the Mohawk culture and included details into his narrative. However, in Notions, Cooper states: "In the more interior parts of the Country, I frequently met families of the Indians, either travelling or proceeding to some villages, with their wares. They were all alike a stunted, dirty, and degraded race." [Emphasis my own].
This brief comparison reveals that in his fiction, Cooper was much more culturally relevant than in his nonfiction observations. Although in Last of the Mohicans and other works Cooper idealized "good Indians" such as Chingachook and Uncas, and demonized "bad Indians" such as Magua, he made an attempt to portray the Indians in the culturally correct context.
Excerpt from Notions of the Americans
Back to Cooper's Indians